Anne Fitzgerald stood transfixed before a marble man fighting a marble centaur. The centaur had long since lost his head, as had the man, but still they fought on through the centuries, their battle unresolved. It seemed the man might be winning. His right arm, what was left of it, stretched back as if holding a dagger which he was about to thrust into his opponent’s heart. But still the centaur reared up, still the soft folds of the man’s cloak rippled, still the man remained on the very point of plunging that dagger—long since gone—into the cold stone flesh of his enemy.
‘She’s been here every day this week,’ said one doughy-faced attendant to his colleague, who scratched his hook nose and stared.
A tall young American, Patrick Browning, overheard and glanced over at Anne who was slim, with long red wavy hair and a pale complexion which bordered on sickliness but helped to create a fragile beauty. She took what looked like a sweet out of the pocket of her coat and popped it in her mouth which was oversize and added to the drama of her face. She wore tiny red leather gloves.
Patrick Browning ambled across the black marble room, and stood nearby. He was from Connecticut originally, and had gone to college in Boston, then worked for a while on Wall Street before giving it all up, flamboyantly, to be a historian. Since then his life had not been flamboyant in the least, but simply hard work, with very little money. Some of his spare time was spent working as a bouncer in a club. It was not quite the elegant world of the demi-monde he had imagined when he gave up his highly paid Wall Street job. But it suited him well, in particular because it was a long way from home.
‘Fabulous,’ said Patrick out loud in a voice which was curiously intimate, compared with his broad-shouldered appearance. With his baggy beige corduroy trousers, belt and soft shirt, he was dressed like an English academic.
‘What?’ she said, turning to him. Her tone was light and slightly amused.
When he smiled, and he smiled now, his smile crashed through his face, knocking everything else out of the way. His dark brown eyes were enormous, like walking into a room covered in brown velvet.
Anne studied him for a moment then crossed her arms and returned to the battle between the centaur and the swordsman. He noted she was quite young, maybe early twenties.
‘It’s a fabulous piece,’ continued Patrick.
‘Fabulous piece!’ she said, turning back to him. She looked surprised that he was watching her hands not the sculpted frieze of centaur and warrior. ‘Fabulous piece! Is that all you can say?’
‘Well no,’ said Patrick, ‘I could...’
She gave the impression of having green eyes but he couldn’t make them out properly in the light.
‘These are the greatest existing works of Greek culture—look at the skin there—you can see the bowels.’
‘Yes. Amazing,’ said Patrick.
‘Amazing!’ repeated Anne contemptuously.
This conversation was not going as he would have liked but for some reason he couldn’t stop. It was almost as though he was becoming annoyed by the intensity of her interest in the statues, whether because he would have preferred her to be interested in him or because he felt the statues were his own private area, he was not quite sure. He pursed his lips, and his brow felt heavy, overhanging, irritable and his hands large.
He occasionally got into fights when suffering from these particular symptoms.
The two attendants were watching Patrick and Anne with pleasure, both crossing their arms just as both Patrick and Anne were crossing theirs, as if to mock this entertaining show.
‘Pity,’ said Patrick, ‘they should by rights be in Greece.’
‘I’m sorry?’ said Anne, murderously, tucking hair behind her ears, tilting her tiny chin.
His former girlfriend Kate in New York had always been good natured, and had even been good natured about his leaving for London two years ago. He still received letters from her. Her good nature was one of the things which had made him beat his fists against the white walls of Kate’s upper east side apartment. Good nature did not seem to him an appropriate response to the world. Besides, he didn’t want a committed relationship, and she did.
Patrick coughed. To his right, broken sculptures from the Parthenon gestured with handless arms, without heads. Above, spotlights bathed the sculptures in a pink light.
‘I said it’s a pity. They should by rights be in Greece.’
The horses driving the chariot of the sun god surged up through the marble.
Anne’s face tightened. She took a step away from Patrick.
‘I said they should be in Greece,’ insisted Patrick, ‘not in the British Museum. Of course, Lord Elgin should never have removed them from the Parthenon.’
‘Oh really?’ said Anne.
Her lips are far too big for her face, he thought.
‘Lord Elgin,’ continued Patrick, ‘stole them from Athens in the early 1800s. From the Parthenon.’ He wished his throat wasn’t so dry. His body felt larger than any of these huge sculptures, and far more cumbersome while she stood there like some buttery, ethereal, poised, questioning, yet without any apparent awareness of the clumsy business of human, mortal limbs. ‘As perhaps you know.’
Anne drew back a red glove and examined her watch. As she did so, her hair fell forward slightly. Her silly glittering hair clips did not hold her landslide of hair well.
‘You know about Elgin?’ he said. ‘He was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire—in Constantinople—who took it upon himself to steal these invaluable sculptures.’
The woman’s high-heeled boots were close together. Her coat was soft velvet, like a cat’s skin.
‘Interesting you say that,’ she said.
There was a distant, condescending note to her voice, which unnerved him.
‘I must be getting on,’ said the young woman, turning away, the folds of her black coat rippling with a beauty more immediate than the cold folds of the soldiers’ cloaks all around them.
Patrick panicked. He had behaved like a boor. He should apologise. He couldn’t imagine why he did it, except for her tiny hands. His mind sorted through a variety of words and haphazardly landed on ‘Lord Elgin was a jerk’. He uttered these words.
Anne stiffened. She smiled gently, pityingly at Patrick, then walked away.
For a moment he followed, but there was something about the defiance of her shoulders that made him stay back.
He settled his thumping heart, which felt as though some pulsating creature was at loose within him, by studying the broken wonders all around him.
Behind him Dionysus reclined, his hands and feet gone, and Iris, messenger of the gods, hurries on, the wind blowing her dress against her stone body, racing through time, but never arriving.
As he walked out a few moments later, through the museum, sunlight strikes down over colossal black scarab beetles, over two pillars soaring up, over stone hawks sitting docile through the centuries, a world of violent shapes. This is magic, he thought, this is a world of magic and transformation. He stayed quite still, awed by the sunlight and splendour, the moment of glory in a city day, and as he stopped he saw that the young woman, the young woman of the centaur and the swordsman, of the gloves and velvet coat, had also stopped to look at the sunlight, before hurrying on, away from him, the long coat swinging behind her.